Learn lest we lose

Published 6:13 am Friday, February 2, 2007

By Staff
George Santayana once wrote that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
A recent Sound Off caller made an alarming comment which suggests that Americans may be less doomed to repeat the past than the past may be doomed by Americans’ ignorance. The caller had this to say:
So what is there to learn about a place with no history? There is no answer to that question. The very existence of a place inhabited continuously since before Europeans set foot in North Carolina in the 16th century assures that place a history.
Living in a city founded in 1776, it is perhaps more the case that a surplus, rather than a deficit, of historical wealth, is what one discovers in this city.
It is fortunate for the residents of Washington that the buildings the caller referred to are still standing. But history, in essence, is intangible. The remembrance of the past does not and should not require apraisable property.
Much of the history of the area involves farming, an occupation whose products are consumed and returned to the earth, leaving little trace. It is the life stories of the people who tilled the land in days past that constitute the land’s history.
In hopes that the call was an angrily disguised question about the what invisible history the city, here’s an example:
In 1923, four boys began collecting specimens of insects, reptiles and mammals in a tent in one of the boys’ back yards. The Bug House Laboratory, with help from local professionals, soon grew into the Washington Field Museum which, at its height, was the largest amateur museum in the country, according to “Washington and the Pamlico,” a local history edited by William Loy and Ford Worthy. After its grand opening in 1934, the museum would become famous for being the site of the first captive hatching of a Great Horned Owl.
When World War II called the men of the organization to arms, the museum was forced to close and the building was commandeered by the city as a recreation center. The contents of the museum were moved to the old Armory on Main Street for storage and soon disposed of.
That is but two pages of a 549-page volume of the city’s history. Ysobel Litchfield, a local historian, contributed to “Washington and the Pamlico” when it was published in 1976. In an interview with the Daily News in November she lamented the destruction of the home of one of the city’s native sons.
In the absence of physical reminders, there is a duty to learn and preserve the history that might otherwise be forgotten or lost.